MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have the Golden State Warriors in their seventh Western Conference semifinal in 10 seasons, and both finally are as healthy as they’ve been since reaching five straight NBA Finalsfrom 2015-19.
That remarkable run started when the Warriors rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the second round against Memphis in 2015, marking a big switch in the direction for both franchises.
Ja Morant has the rebuilt Grizzlies back in the West semis for the first time in seven years. The dynamic guard leads a young, brash and deep roster that edged out Golden State for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with the NBA’s best record behind only Phoenix.
And Memphis can’t wait to see how it matches up with the veteran-led, playoff-tested Warriors.
”We feel like we are one of the best backcourts in the league as well,” Morant said. ”So, going into any matchup, we’re taking ourselves over anybody. We’re very confident. We put in the work.”
The third-seeded Warriors, rested with three days off since ousting Denver on Wednesday night, know what they want starting Sunday afternoon in Game 1.
”We’ve been around the block, and we’re trying to get back to the mountaintop and understand the opportunity in front of us,” Curry said Saturday before the Warriors left San Francisco.
The last time these teams met on the playoff stage in 2015, Memphis jumped out to a 2-1 lead. The Warriors found their turning point after that and went on to win the series in six games on their way to capturing the franchise’s first championship in 40 years.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr calls this a ”role reversal” with the Warriors the younger team then and now the more experienced group with four main players still around from that title squad. And yes, Kerr believes postseason runs help teams forge an identity.
”Memphis is in a similar boat now gaining that experience, feeling what it’s like to be on the road and trailing in the fourth quarter, and they’ve done a really good job of advancing and getting to this stage and now it continues,” Kerr said. ”The more experience you get, the better.”
Memphis earned the No. 8 seed a year ago after beating San Antonio, then going on the road to beat the Warriors in the play-in tournament. The Grizzlies took three of four in the regular season with Thompson playing only once, Draymond Green playing two and Curry averaging 36.3 points in his three games.
Curry scored at least 30 points in his last two games and three of four coming off the bench in all but Game 5 against the Nuggets to protect his tender left foot. Thompson is thrilled to be back in the playoffs after his 2 1/2-year recovery from surgeries for a torn ACL in his left knee and a torn right Achilles.
”Now that we are finally nearly whole, it’s such a great playoffs again and we look forward to the next round,” Thompson said.
The Grizzlies are still playing because they play their best in the final 12 minutes. They’re the first team in NBA history to post multiple comeback victories when trailing by double digits going into the fourth quarter, and they did it three times ousting Minnesota.
They outscored Minnesota 198-136 in the final quarter, finishing the series with a 40-22 edge in the fourth of Game 6. The Grizzlies ended the game on a 17-7 run. The Grizzlies not only lead the NBA scoring 33 points in the fourth quarter this postseason, they also top the league in that quarter making 45.3% of their 3s.
IN THE PAINT
The Warriors believe they can defend any big man after getting past Denver star Nikola Jokic in the first round – even if the 7-foot reigning MVP averaged 31 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists over the five-game series.
Now, Golden State gets to take on a Memphis squad that led the NBA in rebounding during the regular season – and only Milwaukee has hit the boards better so far in the postseason with the Grizzlies averaging 46.3 rebounds per game.
Green and Kevon Looney handled the defensive load against Jokic with help from everyone like guards Gary Payton II, Thompson and even Curry. The next challenge on the low block is Xavier Tillman and Brandon Clarke with Steven Adams – the league’s top rebounder on the offensive boards – still out in the health and safety protocols.
Memphis finally has a 3-point shooter this franchise has been looking for in Desmond Bane who set the franchise record for most 3s made. Since Nov. 18, he has been the NBA’s best 3-point shooter at 45.9%, and now he has Memphis’ postseason mark with 27 3s in six games to lead this postseason.
Morant called Bane the MVP of Memphis’ first-round win over Minnesota.
Right behind him?
Thompson is making 4.4 3-pointers per game with Curry at 3.8.
While Jordan Poole’s five games in the first round were his first formal playoff games, Kerr considers last year’s play-in games with the Grizzlies quite an introduction for the third-year guard to the big stage.
He started along with Curry and Thompson in the Warriors’ clinching Game 5 win against the Nuggets. Poole averaged 21 points against Denver, shooting 51.9% from beyond the arc to give Golden State yet another perimeter threat and matchup problem.
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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